A Tribute to the Silver Age of DC Comics







Here is the interview I enjoyed with Sal Buscema:

Bryan D. Stroud: Do you remember what your first published piece of art was?

Sal Buscema: That would have to be in 1959 as far as commercial work, but actually as I think about it, Iíll bet it was something I did for the Army because believe it or not my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) in the Army between í56 and í58 was as an illustrator for the Engineer Corps, which surprised the heck out of me, so I couldnít tell you precisely what it was, but that would probably be the first professionally published thing I ever did. I was attached to the Engineer School at Fort Belvoir and worked there for almost two years doing those illustrations for the Engineer Corps.

Of course I worked with John (Buscema) on comics before I got into them myself. He was working for Dell Publishing at the time and occasionally when he got into deadline problems I would work with him doing backgrounds, inking them and that kind of thing in order to help him out.

BDS: Did you have any formal training?

SB: My only formal training was where both John and I attended, which was the High School of Music and Art. Are you familiar with the movie and T.V. show ďFame?Ē

BDS: I am.

SB: Well, that was the school they were talking about. Of course at the time they were doing ďFame,Ē the movie and the television show, it had expanded to not only music and art, but had expanded to the performing arts also. So it is now the High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. It was quite a school that was established by the Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia. He thought it was necessary to have a school that dealt with the fine arts and serious music and it really was quite a school. We had 4 symphony orchestras, believe it or not and the art curriculum was pretty difficult. I was commuting from Brooklyn and would leave my house probably about a quarter to seven in the morning and take a subway to the school. It was actually located pretty much in the heart of Harlem on 135th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City just on the other side of CCNY. The art curriculum was extensive and very, very good. Unfortunately, being a kid and not being too bright I just didnít take full advantage of it, but I guess enough of it rubbed off on me so that I could at least try to make it a career.

That was the extent of my formal training. John went on to Pratt Institute for a year or two, I think, which was a very, very fine school at the time. I wanted to get right into the business and am not sorry that I did. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. And thatís at an age where youíre not usually making very many good decisions, but it worked out for me and Iíve never regretted it. I had the opportunity to go to Cooper Union in New York City which was a very fine art college, but it dealt primarily with fine art and I wanted to get into the commercial end of the business, so I declined that and got a job as an apprentice and as they say the rest is history. So aside from the training I already mentioned, Iím primarily self-taught.

BDS: Iím genuinely surprised that you didnít have more formal training. Your work has always been lovely.

SB: Having been doing this now for nearly 60 years, I developed the belief that no one can teach you to be an artist. You have to learn on your own. You can get guidance, which is essentially what you get in school. Unfortunately there are some schools that misguide you, which is just an unfortunate fact of life. There isnít much you can do about that. At the period of time when I was looking for more extensive training there really werenít very many good schools to go to, so I just jumped right into the business and learned right on the job. In that respect it was a very good beginning for me.

BDS: So you were in the commercial side of the industry to begin with?

SB: Yes. My first job was in a commercial art studio and for the first 13 years of my career I was a commercial illustrator, graphic designer and whatever the rest of it might entail.

BDS: Thatís usually the goal of many artists, and yet you went into comics. How did that come about?

SB: It was my desire to do comics initially, but when I was ready to do comics the comic book industry was pretty much dead. Weíre talking about the 1950ís. I graduated in í53 and in the early Ď50ís you may remember the big scandal about comic books back then. Of course if they compared them to what theyíre doing today they would be like childrenís stories. Itís amazing how the times change. The industry was so depressed that John had to get out of it also and go into other areas of commercial art because there just wasnít any work available, much less so for a beginner like myself. This is why I was forced to go into other areas of commercial art. It was wonderful, wonderful training for me. I was very happy with the results and if I had to do it all over again I would not change a thing.

BDS: Do you recall the page rates when you were getting your start?

SB: Letís see, I always use John as kind of a yardstick because he was 8 years older than me and got started in the business with Timely and Stan Lee when he was 20 years old. That would have been 1948. He started working for salary, but as things began to deteriorate somewhat in the industry he went on to become a freelancer and I would say that the page rates were, for the top people, and of course he went on to become one of the better known people in the business, probably in the area of $35.00 to $40.00 a page, perhaps as much as $50.00 penciling and inking.

If you had enough work and a reasonable amount of speed you could make a living. Of course salaries back then were much lower than they are today. He did all right until the bottom fell out of the industry.

BDS: When you made the transition to comics did you start at Marvel?

SB: Yes. I was very fortunate. Isí a funny story, actually. John accidentally met Stan Lee in Manhattan one day. They just bumped into each other on the street. They got to talking, discussing the old days and this was years after John had left Timely and went into other areas of commercial art and Stan was asking him about his desire to do comics because he said the business was coming back. This was probably right around the late Ď50ís or early Ď60ís.

He said, ďJohn, weíre looking for people, so if you want back in, just say the word. We can pay better rates and business is really picking up and we need good people.Ē So thatís what he did. He was commuting from pretty far out on Long Island to Manhattan with the commercial art job that he had and while he was making a good salary it was really a burden for him because he was commuting 4 hours a day and it was just killing him. So when this opportunity presented itself where he could be a freelancer and work at home, he jumped at it.

Now when I heard about that and heard that the industry was doing well again I decided I needed to take a crack at it. Heíd mentioned it to me because we communicated by phone and I worked for about a year because I had to learn how to do comics. Iíd never really done them except for the little bit Iíd done with John. The big thing was superheroes by the likes of Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, John Romita, Sr. and their peers and they were flourishing. Marvel was doing very, very well and so I decided to take a crack at it. I worked up a 6-page story, just in pencils, I really wanted to ink. That was my first love. I just wanted to be an inker, but John said they were looking for pencilers, so I thought Iíd try that and then adjust from there.

I made up the samples, Stan saw them and he liked them and consequently I worked for Marvel for over 40 years.

BDS: Wow! You canít ask much more than that.

SB: No. Iíve been very blessed. Itís been a wonderful career and Iím still doing it. I will continue to do comic books as long as people want me to do them, although now Iím just doing inking and have been for the last several years. I enjoy that thoroughly. Itís a lot of fun. All youíre doing is finishing the work, to be blunt about it, as opposed to a penciler where youíve got to put in a lot of thought into the storytelling. The pacing, the design of the story, page and panel layout, breakdown, itís just so much more difficult and so much more work. As an inker, you get the stuff thatís already penciled and finish it off and have a great time doing it. To me itís just a lot more fun.

I enjoyed penciling very much. I did it for many, many years and worked on just about every character that Marvel had and I did enjoy it a lot, but it is a lot of very hard work. It requires a lot of thought, effort and energy and comparatively, inking is a blast. I could do it in my sleep. Thereís a little hyperbole there, but thatís the way I look at it. Inking is just a lot of fun and thatís why I enjoy it so much, because to me itís really not work.

BDS: What more could you ask? According to another friend of mine who is an industry pro, heíd seen your pencil work before and said it looked like your primary method was breakdowns. Was that your usual approach?

SB: I was asked to do breakdowns. One of the things that I was blessed with was strength in my storytelling ability and I was pretty fast. I was able to crank out stories at a pretty good rate of speed. It took me a few years to get to that point, but once I got there it came fairly easily to me. Because of that ability, Marvel would come to me frequently and ask me to do fill-in jobs where they were having deadline problems on given books. So in order to expedite things and to get the stories done faster I would do what they called breakdowns, where pretty much everything was there. My breakdowns were fairly tight. The only thing that was lacking were the blacks and if youíve got a good inker they know where to put the blacks and they would follow my stuff pretty well.

With breakdowns you could turn out a story a lot faster. Since Marvel came to me frequently and asked me to do this additional work, obviously I could not do really tight, finished pencils on all of them because the time just didnít allow, so I would go with breakdowns and it got to be a pretty normal thing. I enjoyed that a lot better when I was penciling and inking my own books. I would just do breakdowns for myself because then I could do the finish work with the inking.

At one point for Marvel and I was penciling and inking two books a month. That was a real boon to me because the way we worked back then, rather than the computer driven world of comics today, I would pencil the book, or rather do breakdowns and then the dialogue would be written and the lettering would be done and then it would come back to me for inking. Then it was a matter of doing the finish work with the ink. I actually draw better with a brush than I do with a pencil. Why, I donít know. It just seems to be the way things are. Anyway, that was a real boon to me because I enjoyed the inking more than the penciling, so it was just a nicer way for me to work. I did that for a lot of years at Marvel and of course a lot of other guys did, too.

Again, my breakdowns were pretty tight, so if another inker got a job to do on my pencils, everything was there for him. He didnít have to do any guesswork or redraw anything. Essentially what breakdowns were in my case was just straight line. No blacks, no shading, nothing of that sort. What you saw in the comic book was what I did in pencil without any of the blacks that would appear in the finished product.

BDS: What were your favored tools?

SB: At the time Windsor-Newton were producing the best brushes in the world, but their product really deteriorated in later years and frankly Iíve had a lot of problems finding good brushes. I switched to a pen for a period of years because I could not find good brushes that would work the way I wanted them to work. I was fortunate enough to find some brushes produced by a small company in Ireland. Apparently an elderly retired couple decided they wanted to have a little side business and became the American distributor for this company. The name of the brush is Kolinsky. Theyíre really good brushes, though not as good as the best Windsor-Newton brushes were years ago. Still, they do what I want them to do.

As far as pencils, I just use a good old HB or plain old No. 2 pencil. Iíve also used Pelican ink for years, but have found it difficult to get it from my distributor in large bottles. I have also had good luck with an India ink made in Japan. Itís good quality, a nice dense black and Iím delighted to have found it because I can get it in large bottles which of course reduce the cost by a considerable amount. Unfortunately I canít tell you the brand name because itís written in Japanese. (Laughter.)

BDS: Who were your artistic influences?

SB: The old masters, of course such as Michelangelo, who was one of the greatest draftsmen who ever lived; Peter Rubens, who was another absolutely magnificent draftsman; the more modern classics, I just absolutely fell in love with the work of John Singer Sargent. Rembrandt obviously was one of my all-time favorites.

Where commercial artists are concerned I would list Robert Fawcett, which is a name thatís probably not terribly familiar. He was with the correspondence course known as the Famous Artistís School, which was started by Albert Dorne back in the Ď50ís and it became a really outstanding school for commercial artists. It was composed of the twelve top commercial artists of the day. Al Parker was one while Albert Dorne was the president and founder of the school. Robert Fawcett, probably one of the greatest draftsmen America has ever produced; his work was absolutely exquisite; he did story illustrations for Colliers magazine and in fact all of the major magazines of the time which are now all defunct unfortunately. And of course Norman Rockwell was another member at the school.

At any rate, I was greatly influenced by Robert Fawcett. His drawings and illustrations were just magnificent. He did a series for Colliers Magazine many years ago written by a descendant of Arthur Conan Doyle and they were about Sherlock Holmes. He did these absolutely magnificent illustrations that were just beautiful and whatís ironic about it is that the guy was color blind. His wife was also an artist and she would help him with the colors.

Thatís a short list, but right now Iím just very much into John Singer Sargent. The man was an absolute genius. When I look at his paintings I just cannot believe the brush strokes. The control that he had and the mastery of color were simply unreal.

BDS: Youíve had a lot of wonderful collaborations over the years. Does anyone particularly leap to mind as especially enjoyable to work with?

SB: As far as the guys Iíve been working with recently, Ron Frenz, who I think is probably one of the top five guys in the business today. Heís a tremendous storyteller and a wonderful draftsman. His stuff is so dynamic and powerful. Tom DeFalco. These are two very good friends of mine. We are not only colleagues in the business, but weíve known each other for many years and theyíve been just a joy to work with. We did Spider-girl together and the work has kind of petered out a little bit, but Ron and I are working together now for IDW Publishing in California on G.I. Joe and various other projects.

Before that, Mark DeMatteis, who is a terrific writer who comes up with just wonderful stuff. When I first started working on the Hulk I was working with Len Wein. He and I had a wonderful relationship and I think we did some good stuff together. You must remember Iíve been at this for over 44 years now and sometimes the names arenít that easy to access, even though I had some terrific experiences with many, many good people.

I loved inking Herb Trimpeís stuff. He and I collaborated on a recent job for IDW and it was the first time in about 35 years that he and I have worked together. I loved inking his stuff.

BDS: Iíve heard only good things about Herb. He seems to be one of those salt of the earth guys.

SB: He really is and the funny thing about that is Herb and I communicated maybe once or twice over the years on the phone and that was the extent of it. We didnít know each other except through our work. Recently Ron Frenz was attending a comic book convention in Baltimore and I told Ron that since it was convenient we were going to meet and have lunch together and come to find out Herb Trimpe was also there as a guest so for the first time in over 40 years I got to meet Herb Trimpe in person. He was just one of the finest gentlemen youíd ever want to meet. Heís a super guy and Iíve only heard wonderful things about him and it was just a joy to see him there. We talked for a while and it was just really a lot of fun meeting him after all these years of collaborating.

As a matter of fact, when I first started talking to Stan Lee about getting work at Marvel, the first guy that he showed me, whose work he used as an example of what he wanted in storytelling was by Herb Trimpe. Herb was a wonderful storyteller. It was very graphic, very simple and very straight forward and very well done. He was the first guy I saw up there at Marvel in person being utilized by Stan Lee.

BDS: Did you have a favorite character you worked on over the course of your long career?

SB: Absolutely. My favorite would be the Incredible Hulk. Far and away. I love the character and did it for almost 10 years. As a matter of fact Herb did it for 7-1/2 years and I did it for almost 10 and whatís so funny is that there was a book produced a couple of years ago that was a history of the Incredible Hulk and neither one of us are in there. (Chuckle.) I find that really extraordinary since between the two of us we had 17 or 18 yearsí worth of work illustrating that character. He and I had a good laugh about that. Maybe they were just highlighting the more recent talent. Just the nature of the business I suppose. Anyway, that is definitely my favorite character and Iíd work on him in a minute given the opportunity.

BDS: Do you feel like theyíve done him justice on the big screen?

SB: I felt like they finally captured him very well in The Avengers. Better than the first two films. The first movie certainly had its moments, but I just didnít care for the movie that much or for the story that much. I think they really got carried away and never felt like Ang Lee had a feel for what the character was all about. I didnít like the fact that he was 25 feet tall, for example and I really felt like they missed the boat. Now I thought some of the animation was excellent. He was a little too good looking for my tastes.

I thought the second movie was much better in terms of the story. In a lot of instances I didnít think the animation was that good. The drawing of the figures just wasnít that good. It had its moments, too and was superior to the first movie, but in The Avengers I thought they really captured what the character was all about. It was a lot of fun and they even managed to inject some comedy into it and I really liked it. I just think they finally hit their stride. The first two movies, especially the first, just missed the boat. The second one was better and I thought The Avengers was excellent.

BDS: Iím with you. I was with everyone else in the theater audience laughing my head off at those two particular scenes.

SB: (Laughter.) They were hilarious and it was like he was a big kid. This 6-year old mentality with the strength of a billion guys was absolutely hilarious. I think itís part of what makes the character interesting and so much fun to do. The possibilities are almost limitless with a character like that.

BDS: Youíve worked both Marvel method and full script. Do you have a preference between them?

SB: Oh, yes. Marvel method far and away. One of the reasons Iíd given up penciling was because first of all Iíd had enough of it. I think Iíd just gotten to the point where I was oversaturated. I didnít want to do any more penciling. Essentially, Iíd retired. Even though I want to continue working I was officially retired some 11 or 12 years ago.

Working full script is just an absolute bore. I think it was the genius of Stan Lee who came up with this concept of working by giving the outline of the story to the artists and telling them to flesh it out and this is what created the excitement of Marvel comics. It made them head and shoulders above anything else that was being produced in the Ď60ís, Ď70ís, Ď80ís and even the Ď90ís and made them the biggest selling comic book company in the world. I think it was because of that method. The stories were so much more dynamic. I mean who can tell a story better than Jack Kirby, pictorially speaking? Stan recognized that the gift these guys had and said, ďLet me just give them their head. Let them do whatever they want to do.Ē The result was fantastic. To this day I cannot understand why it was abandoned.

I donít even look at comic books any more. I was at Borders a month or two ago and out of morbid curiosity I walked over to the comic book end and picked up a couple of Spider-Man books and one or two others and leafed through them and I had to put them back on the shelf. I canít stand looking at them anymore. I donít know whatís happened to the medium of comic books, but thatís not what theyíre doing anymore. Theyíre just not doing comic books anymore. Theyíre trying to reproduce movies in comics and it doesnít work. It never will because itís a completely unique and different medium.

Theyíre working on them full script. I speak with Ron Frenz frequently and heís doing work for DC occasionally and doing work for Marvel occasionally and theyíre all working from full script and he canít stand it. He hates it and for the reasons I stated. Itís so restricting. Itís a case of the writer telling the story by telling the artist what to do, where to place the characters, what he wants in every panel. It just doesnít work as well. We, as artists, think visually. I know they say writers think visually, too, but itís just not the same. I think it shows in the difference of the product between today and the product of the heyday of Marvel. There is no comparison as far as Iím concerned.

Itís interesting. I donít do conventions any more, but when I was, especially back in the earlier days, most of the attendees were children; kids or at least young people. Then there was this extraordinary change in later years. The last dozen or so conventions that I did revealed to me that the people waiting in line for drawings or autographs and so forth were 30, 40 and 50 year-olds. And every one of them telling me, ďI donít buy comic books anymore, when I want to read a comic I re-read my old ones. I just donít buy them anymore.Ē

This is why the industry is about 20% of what it used to be. I donít understand why this is not recognized by the powers that be. The only conclusion I can come to is that they are strictly trying to satisfy their own creative egos. Thatís the only way I can put it. Theyíre not interested in selling comic books. When we were doing comic books, to us it was a business. We were in the business of selling comic books and we sold a ton of comic books. There was a time when Marvel had 50 or 60 titles a month and if a comic book was selling in the 40,000 to 50,000 range per month, it was on the bubble.

I just heard a story recently where the editorial staff at Marvel was all excited because their top Spider-Man book sold 50,000 copies. This is whatís happening now and I just find it extraordinary. When I was doing Spider-Man there were four separate Spider-Man books. Mine was in third place and it would sell anywhere from 220,000 to 230,000 copies a month. Combined, the four books sold over one million copies a month. Now they get excited over 50,000. And as I said, 50,000 in sales for a particular issue back in Marvelís heyday probably would have led to that book being canceled because the sales werenít good enough.

So thatís where weíve come and I donít understand why. I donít understand the thinking anymore. The comic books we used to do are being produced on film now. Theyíre certainly not being produced in the books. I have no idea what theyíre doing and I just donít even look at them anymore.

BDS: The last new books I enjoyed were John Severinís art on Dark Horseís ďWitchfinder.Ē John Severin was just the best at vintage western work and this was a showcase for him. I was especially impressed where some pages had no dialogue at all because it didnít need it.

SB: Exactly. One of the nicest things that ever happened to me, pertaining to what you just said, when Mark Dematteis and I were working together on Spectacular Spider-Man in the book where Harry Osborn dies, I got very emotional about that because Mark wrote a beautiful plot for me to flesh out the story with and the last couple of pages are the very emotional part where Harry passes away and Peter is overcome with grief and goes to Mary Jane about it and sheís overcome and it was just really an emotional trip for me and I guess I put a lot of that into the last two or three pages of the book and Mark wrote absolutely no dialogue. He called me up to tell me. He said, ďSal, those pages were so beautifully told that they didnít need any dialogue, so I didnít put any in.Ē That was one of my proudest moments in my career because coming from a guy like Mark DeMatteis, who is just an outstanding writer; it really moved me a lot. It was very touching.

BDS: What higher compliment could you receive?

SB: Thatís what comic books are supposed to be. Comic books are supposed to be pictures, telling a story. The ideal that we always worked for on a monthly basis was to tell the story so that it didnít need any dialogue. And of course itís a pipe dream, because youíve got to have dialogue, youíve got to have descriptions and so forth, but this was what we worked toward. I have no idea what theyíre working for today. I look at pages of panels of heads talking to one another and I have no idea whatís going on and I donít care. (Chuckle.)

Itís very sad. Itís a wonderful medium, but itís dying a slow or maybe pretty rapid now, death. Thank God for the movies because we can kind of rejoice when we see these movies and most of them are wonderful. I never miss them and have frankly been disappointed in very few of them. Most of them have been very well done.

BDS: You did one recent project that was kind of interesting to me when you inked the Retroactive Flash from the Ď70ís for DC.

SB: Is that the thing with all the gorillas in it?

BDS: Thatís the one.

SB: Oh, yeah. The penciler was a guy from Spain, I believe and one of the reasons they asked me to ink it was because I think the guy was just very, very rushed. They must have given him a ridiculous deadline and if Iím not mistaken it was something like a 28- page story. It was more than 22 anyway. (26 in my copy.) Essentially what they wanted me to do was tweak it a little bit. It looked to me like the guy just banged out the pages because he had a ridiculous deadline.

Heís a pretty good draftsman and looks like heís a pretty decent storyteller, but the pencils left something to be desired. So being a penciler myself I think they just wanted me to tweak it. It was somewhat of a fun job. I was very reluctant to do that to another penciler because I didnít like it done to me when I was penciling, but in this case I think it was necessary because some of the panels just seemed to have a lot of stuff omitted. Let me put it that way. It was kind of an interesting job. I saw the finished product when I got my comps and it looked okay.

BDS: I thought so and it was just interesting to me to see your work on a DC book, even though itís far from your only DC work.

You mentioned your new work with IDW. How did that come about?

SB: The work at Marvel and DC kind of dried up and I just want to keep working. Not out of financial necessity, but I just happen to be one of those weird people. First of all, I enjoy what I do so much that I donít even consider it work, but Iím also one of those individuals that think that work is good for you.

When you retire, what do you do for 24 hours? Well, you sleep for 8 and you recreate for 8. What do you do with the other 8? Thereís just so much recreating you can do and I was climbing the walls after a while and I said, ďIíve got to get some work.Ē Keep busy. I decided Iíve got to keep working as long as people want me to work, if for nothing else to maintain my sanity.

So I knew one of the editors at IDW. I had done a cover or some small work for him that heíd asked me to do and he used to work for Marvel, so I called his number and he wasnít in so I left a message and told him what the situation was and I said I was trying to get some work because I want to work. I didnít hear anything back and then I guess it was 5 or 6 weeks later when I got a call from Chris Ryall who was the editor-in-chief at IDW and they said they had gotten the message from this other editorís voice mail and that he was no longer with the company and they just hadnít changed the voice mail and they were really sorry that they didnít get back to me sooner. So they had just discovered this message that Iíd left and they said theyíd be more than happy to have me do some work for them and I said I was delighted to hear that and here we are. Iím doing work for IDW now. I appreciate it and theyíre a smaller company, but they seem to have their act together and Iím working with a good young penciler there along with working with Ron Frenz on G.I. Joe. Iím working with Lee Ferguson who is a very talented young man and weíre working on a book called ďForgotten RealmsĒ where itís actually a licensed product having to do with the Dungeons and Dragons game.

Itís good, solid stuff and Iím enjoying it thoroughly. I really am. Itís fun inking different people, too. My philosophy is that youíve got to keep busy or you just sit and sign your own death warrant. The body and the brain need to be kept active.

BDS: Do you do much in the way of commission work?

SB: Oh, yeah. Iíve got an agent and weíve got a 25-year relationship and he comes through with commissions fairly frequently.

BDS: Have you tried you hand at painting?

SB: Itís something Iíve tried in the past and itís something that I always want to get to, but for some reason I just never get to it. But it will happen. I know it will because all I have to do is open one of my books on John Singer Sargent and I get inspired and I start to think, ďIíve got to do something. Paint a portrait or a landscape or something.Ē Iíll get around to it one of these days.

BDS: I know that among your interests is something that two of your peers have also done, namely Frank Springer and Joe Rubinstein who have both hit the stage on occasion.

SB: Oh, youíre talking about Community Theater. Iím a ham from way back. I did stuff in school and then one year when I was well into my 40ís I decided it would be fun. I was looking for another activity and thought, ďWhy donít I try Community Theater?Ē I wound up doing it for over 20 years.

It wore off after a while. It was fun while it lasted and I met a lot of wonderful people and made a lot of wonderful friends. It was just a really terrific experience. I enjoyed it thoroughly.


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